UnTwelve is proud to present an interview with our 3rd prize winner from the 2010 composition competition, Igliashon Jones. His entry, Persephone Descends was premiered on Jan. 29th at the winner's "dark concert".
Igliashon Jones (legal name Jason Yerger) is a microtonal guitarist and electronic music composer. He currently favors uncommon equal divisions of the octave, Like 16, 20, 18, 8, And 10. He is almost 28 years old, and has no formal musical training. He lives in Oakland, CA, not far from the birthplace of the alternative tunings e-mailing list from Mills College, but is sad to report a near-total lack of microtonal community in Oakland these days.
UnTwelve: Can you tell us a little bit about your musical background?
IJ: The only musical instrument on which I have any formal technical training is the guitar, on which I've taken a grand total of about 9 months of lessons in my entire life. I started learning around the age of 13 and spent most of my middle school and high school years playing in alternative rock bands, often covering bands like Weezer and the Smashing Pumpkins. What little I know about common-practice music theory I picked up from various friends who majored in music in college.
UnTwelve: When did you discover tuning and microtones as an interesting dimension to use in your composing? What draws you to it?
IJ: Well, in my formative years I always saw myself as a bit of an outsider, as someone who existed apart from my fellow human beings. Not superior or anything, mind you, just...with a different set of innate desires and priorities. So when I became a musician, it didn't take me long to realize that it's painfully difficult to write music in a pop idiom without simply rephrasing or outright repeating the same musical ideas that countless others have already expressed, and I found that frustrating. Try as I might, I just couldn't find a way to escape sounding "familiar" and "ordinary"--I tried playing everything in crazy compound time-signatures, using a variety of bizarre (though still 12-tET) open-tunings on my guitars, using ludicrous amounts of effects processing (at one point I possessed over 30 stomp-boxes and employed ALL OF THEM in my setup)...but no matter which way I turned, it seemed as though countless other musicians had already been there and claimed those techniques for their own.
Then it dawned on me one day, probably around 2003 or so: one thing that every musician (or every musician I knew of at the time) had in common was "the same 12 notes". If there's only so many ways they can be arranged in a pop song, wasn't the escape route obvious? I had to use "more" notes! I tried to imagine what it would sound like if I added a 13th note to the octave, right in the middle, so that all the surrounding intervals would have to squeeze in a bit to accommodate it. I couldn't imagine it. So I turned to the internet. The rest is history.
IJ: The world of microtonality is definitely the "holy grail" of idiosyncrasy that I once sought. It is such a vast and unexplored territory that it is not in the least bit difficult to find things that I am literally the first person to do. Not that that gives me possession of them; I have no desire to stamp my name on music history, and in fact I operate almost exclusively under a pseudonym (what parents would be so crass as to name a child "Igliashon"?) so that credit to my person is almost impossible to bestow. The important thing to me is not to receive credit as an innovator, or to have a hand in establishing theoretical conventions; it's simply to have the freedom to define my own musical language without having to worry about pre-defined connotations. The ability to write music that people can hear for the first time ever and really be forced to think a bit about what they are hearing and what it means.
UnTwelve: Tell us a little bit about your process in general, and in particular for your entry piece. What does 'technique' mean to you? Are there any ways you tend to find inspiration?
IJ: Even in the world of microtonality, I seem to be a bit of a maverick. I go for tunings that most people with an education in the fundamentals of Just Intonation would sneer at as being "hopelessly discordant". I don't do it just to be a weirdo, though; I find that scales which deviate significantly from JI have a more pronounced "character"--they stick out like burn victims in a crowd of fashion models. It is the unique character of these "bad" scales that inspires me, as often they can do things that "good" scales can't.
For instance, my piece for this contest uses 20-EDO, and specifically a 10-note subset of it that is basically two instances of 5-EDO tuned 180 cents apart. This means it has 5 large steps and 5 small steps, alternating LsLsLsLsLs. In this scale, the interval 3/2 is approximated rather poorly, at 720 cents, but every note in the scale has one of these 3/2's both above it an below it. 5/4 is also very poorly approximated at 420 cents, but 5 out of the 10 notes have one; the other 5 have a poorly-approximated 6/5 at 300 cents. What this means is that in this scale of 10 notes, there are 10 consonant triads (5 otonal and 5 utonal), and two infinite chains of 5 approximate 3/2's (one chain comprises the roots of the otonal triads, the other chain comprises the roots of the utonal triads). The 15-EDO version of this scale has less damage to the 5-limit harmonies, but it also lacks a whole-tone; in the 20-EDO version, the large step is 180 cents and the small step 60 cents, which works a lot better for melody than 15-EDO's 160 cent and 80 cent steps. Overall, this scale is a marvel of harmonic efficiency, and if you can tolerate the mistuning in the 3- and 5-limit (as I think most listeners can; I sure don't find it objectionable), it's wondrously simple to use.
One thing to like about it is that despite the symmetrical nature of the scale, it is not the least bit atonal; really, it is hyper-tonal, as any of the major triads can be tonicized by means of an authentic cadence OR a leading-tone resolution (the 60-cent semitone makes an EXCELLENT leading-tone). On the other hand, it is also possible (since the usual commas of 5-limit temperaments don't vanish in this temperament) to perform some fascinating comma-pumps, whereby chord progressions resolve upward or downward endlessly without coming to rest. This last technique I employed in my piece for UnTwelve, in the melodic section preceding the metal section.
UnTwelve: Do you have any upcoming projects you are excited to share?
IJ: Yes, I do! I have an E.P. that is almost ready for release of guitar music in 16-, 17-, 18-, and 20-EDO guitar music (sometimes including 8-, 9-, and 10-EDO and occasionally making forays into poly-microtonality by juxtaposing one EDO against another), called "Open Space". It will be released on my website, www.cityoftheasleep.com, sometime in the coming months. I also have a full-length album of electronic music in the works, as yet untitled, that will be released on Split Notes microtonal netlabel (http://split-notes.com) later this year, based on tunings designed or selected by some of my microtonal colleagues to maximize dyadic discordance. I should emphasize that this music is not going to be "dissonant", as the album is in part meant as an illustration of my strongest guiding musical principle--"discordant consonance" is not an oxymoron!
UnTwelve: How do you characterize the current music scene as you see it? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
IJ: By "current music scene", I suspect you are referring to the microtonal music scene, so I will answer according to that suspicion. In terms of its strengths, I'd say we have a lot of great thinkers (and a few great musicians) lending their efforts to the cause of mapping out the "final frontier" of music theory. There are a lot of great tunings being devised and discovered, that's for sure. In terms of weakness, there are many, but I cannot fault the community for this. There is so much disagreement about what constitutes a "good" tuning, mostly because there is so little agreement about what constitutes "good" music--there is such a diversity of musical backgrounds in the microtonal world!
Really, there is simply not enough music being made, and too much of the scant music that exists is of an academically-expository nature, lacking in artistic depth (and I include the vast majority of my own microtonal music under this criticism). This is really just the nature of the beast, though--the possibilities are so overwhelmingly diverse that it is very difficult for a musician to settle on a handful of tunings to really explore (let alone a single tuning), and very easy to wander aimlessly from one tuning after another as a tourist, seeing much but accomplishing little. Seldom are one person's discoveries built upon; everyone has to reinvent the wheel for themselves. Collaboration is often difficult as well, and I'm sure I speak for at least some of my peers when I say being a microtonalist has a tendency to alienate one from non-microtonal musicians. It is hard to go back to taking 12-tET music seriously once you've invested your time in microtonality...for me personally, I almost feel guilty when I write something in 12-tET nowadays, and the thought of starting or joining a band that plays in 12-tET seems like a pointless diversion to me. And this is what makes the microtonal music scene weak: the lack of collaboration leads to stasis.